If Bees Are Few

A Hive of Bee Poems


Edited by James P. Lenfestey
Foreword by Bill McKibben
Afterword by Marla Spivak

An anthology of 2,500 years of poetry, from Sappho to Sherman Alexie, humming with bees, at a moment when the beloved honey makers and pollinators are in danger of disappearing

Virgil wrote of bees, as did Shakespeare, Burns, Coleridge, Emerson, and Whitman, among many others. Amid the crisis befalling bees—hives collapsing, wild species disappearing—the poems collected here speak with a quiet urgency of a world lost if bees were to fall silent.

It’s a pleasure to flip through the pages, like a bee flitting from flower to flower.

Star Tribune

It is said there are 20,000 species of bees, a genus 50 million years old, but in the fertile imagination of the world’s poets, there is no beginning or end to the bee buzz. Virgil wrote of bees, as did Rumi, Shakespeare, Burns, Coleridge, Emerson, Mandelstam, Neruda, Whitman—a lyrical hum heard well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in poems by Yeats, Lawrence, Plath, Mary Oliver, Carol Ann Duffy, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Sherman Alexie, among many others.

The title of this book is from Emily Dickinson: To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, / One clover, and a bee, / And revery. / The revery alone will do / If bees are few. Her conclusion resonates with a terrible poignancy today, as bees are indeed becoming few—hives collapsing, wild species disappearing. Amid this crisis, the poems collected here speak with a quiet urgency of a world lost if bees were to fall silent.

If anyone can save the bees, it is entomologist Dr. Marla Spivak and the hive of bee scientists and beekeepers at the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota. A portion of the proceeds from this anthology will be donated to support research at the Bee Lab.


Publishing Professionals Network Book Award

James P. Lenfestey is a former editorial writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where he won several Page One Awards for excellence. He has published a collection of personal essays, five collections of poems, the poetry anthology Low Down and Coming On: A Feast of Delicious and Dangerous Poems about Pigs, and coedited Robert Bly in This World, also from Minnesota. His memoir with prose and poems, Seeking the Cave: A Pilgrimage to Cold Mountain, Milkweed Editions, was a finalist for the 2014 Minnesota Book Award.

Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the “alternative Nobel,” in 2014.

Marla Spivak is an entomologist and Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota. In 2010 she was awarded a grant from the MacArthur Foundation for her pioneering research on honeybees. She heads the University’s Bee Lab (www.beelab.umn.edu).

It’s a pleasure to flip through the pages, like a bee flitting from flower to flower.

Star Tribune

It makes for good summer reading, especially if you have a meadow handy.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The anthology is wide-ranging and surely lasting.

The Hollins Critic

Bees provide a rich metaphorical palette of hives, honey, and stings, and this collection is a timely reminder of all they do for us as pollinators.


Will certainly offer some honey to poetry lovers.

Free Press


Bill McKibben

James P. Lenfestey

If Bees Are Few

Sherman Alexie
In the Matter of Human v. Bee

Maureen Ash

Thorsten Bacon
On Bees

Aliki Barnstone

Willis Barnstone
Eleven Tiny Commandments

John Barr
First Light

Tree Bernstein
A/B/C Scenarios

Barry Blumenfeld
Boy with Honeybee Hair

Robert Bly
Words Rising

Sean Borodale
24th May: Collecting the Bees
6th September: Wild Comb Notes
10th February: Queen

Karina Borowicz

David Bottoms
Cemetery Wings

Jill Breckenridge

Fleda Brown

Robert Burns
“Of A’ the Airts the Wind Can Blaw”

John Burnside

John Caddy
Two New World Bees
Carpenter Bee
Leaf Cutter Bee

Jared Carter
Landing the Bees

Sharon Chmielarz

Lucille Clifton

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Inscription for a Fountain on a Heath

Lorna Crozier
Angel of Bees

Annie Deppe
The Sacrament of the Bees

Emily Dickinson
With Flowers
The bee is not afraid of me
Two Worlds
The Bee
Could I but ride indefinite
The pedigree of honey
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee

Josephine Dickinson

Carol Ann Duffy
Virgil’s Bees

Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Humble-Bee

Heid E. Erdrich
Intimate Detail

Earl of Essex (Robert Devereaux)
The Buzzeinge Bee’s Complaynt

John Evans
The Bees

Diane Fahey

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Alienation: Two Bees

Nick Flynn
Workers (attendants)
Blind Huber (iii)

Stuart Friebert

Ross Gay
Ode to the Beekeeper

Eamon Grennan
Up Against It

Barbara Hamby
The Language of Bees

Tom Hennen
Outside Work

Jim Heynen
The Man Who Talked to His Bees

Selima Hill
Elegy for the Bee-God

Brenda Hillman
In Summer, Everything Is Something’s Twin

Jane Hirshfield

Kevin Holden

Kobayashi Issa

Helen Hunt Jackson
My Bees: An Allegory

Naomi Jackson
Prairie Bees

George Johnston

Susan Deborah King

Rudyard Kipling
The Bee-Boy’s Song

D. H. Lawrence

David Lee
On Finding a Drone Bee and a Painted Lady Butterfly in the Same Claret Cup of Cactus Blossom

James P. Lenfestey
Blaming the Bee

Nathaniel “Max” Lenfestey
Beard of Bees
Her Sting

Diane Lockward
Invective against the Bumblebee

Antonio Machado
Proverbs and Songs
Last Night, As I Lay Sleeping

Bruce MacKinnon
The Bees

Osip Mandelstam
The Necklace

Thomas McCarthy
Foraging Honey-Bees

Paula Meehan
The January Bee

Robert Morgan
Bees Awater
Moving the Bees

Lisel Mueller
Life of a Queen

Amy Nash
Not Just a Question of Fertility

Pablo Neruda
Ode to the Bee

Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Bee Wolf

Joan Nicholson
Antics of Bees

Naomi Shihab Nye
Bees Were Better

Mary Oliver
Honey at the Table

Joe Paddock
A Sort of Honey

Linda Pastan
The Death of the Bee

Sylvia Plath
The Bee Meeting

Lia Purpura

Jeri Reilly

James Silas Rogers
Bumblebee in the Basement

Pattiann Rogers
Service with Benediction

Paul B. Roth

When Grapes Turn to Wine

Jay Salter
Bee Hum
Night Hum
Non-Colonizing Native Bees

Robert Samarotto
Happy Hour at the Prickly Pear Saloon

Fiona Sampson
Winter Bees

William Shakespeare
Ariel’s Song

Jo Shapcott
I Tell the Bees
The Threshold
The Hive
Going About with the Bees
The Sting

Su Smallen
Buddha, Lily

Thomas R. Smith
The Queen in Winter
Ground Bees

Kim Stafford
Nuptial Flight

William Stafford
A Memorial: Son Bret

Pauline Stainer
The Honeycomb

Anne Stevenson
The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves

Joyce Sutphen
Straight out of View

Barton Sutter
The Visitor

May Swenson
A Couple

Mary Szybist
Entrances and Exits

Alfred Lord Tennyson
Come Down, O Maid

Maurice Thompson
Wild Honey

Jeanie Tomasko
Watching Bees

Jean Valentine

The Nature and Qualities of Bees

Ellen Bryant Voigt
The Farmer

G. C. Waldrep
Their Faces Shall Be As Flames

Michael Walsh
Abandoned House with Vagrant Bees

Connie Wanek

J. P. White
The Macadamia Nut Bees

Walt Whitman
from Spontaneous Me

John Greenleaf Whittier
Telling the Bees

Nancy Willard
Bees Swarming
The Poet Enters the Sleep of the Bees

Morgan Grayce Willow
One Clover, and a Bee

Eleanor Rand Wilner
The Girl with Bees in Her Hair

James Wright
The First Days

William Butler Yeats
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
from Meditations in Time of Civil War

Timothy Young
The Bee and the Mosquito

Marla Spivak

Permission Credits